Lia DeMaio knows that she and the rest of her senior teammates have accomplished at Nutley rivals those of just about any class to through the program. But for all of the successes, the Raiders’ star center fielder and leadoff hitter knows that accomplishments have been met with heartbreak of the one thing that had yet to achieve — a championship.
By defeating West Morris, 10-5, in the NJSIAA North Jersey, Section 2, Group 3 final on Thursday, May 26, Nutley did more than just win its first sectional title in seven years. For these seniors, it was the championship they so desperately wanted after falling one win short in this tournament as freshmen and juniors.
Overall, it was the 60th win over the past three seasons produced by this senior class, which includes four-year starters DeMaio, Fallyn Stoeckel and Sydney Hess.
“Coming into this game we were like we’re getting this win. We wanted this win so bad,” DeMaio said. “We’ve come up short so many times that we wanted this win for us and for our team so it was a great feeling to finally get that.
“It means the world to me. We’ve been fighting for this since our freshman year so to finally get this, it was a great feeling to do it with my sisters.”
Despite an early 1-0 deficit, DeMaio helped ensure this time would be different when she opened the bottom of the first inning with a single, followed by a Robin Niland single and Stoeckel’s RBI double to tie the score.
Sydney Hess and Gianna Lembo both walked to load the bases for Nikki Cicchetti, who hit a bases-clearing double that made it 5-1.
“As soon as Lia got on, I knew the first inning was going to be big,” said Stoeckel, who later drew two walks at the plate and struck out five from the circle in the win. “I knew we were going to get more than the other team and we did. After the first inning, everyone relaxed a little bit, we took a deep breath and we were on our way.”
Nutley’s offense, which struggled at the beginning of the season, continued its resurgence with a run in the second inning, followed by three in the third behind RBI hits Skye Stoeckel and Mia DiPiano at the bottom of the order to make it 9-1.
In four state tournament games, Nutley’s offense is averaging nearly eight runs per game, outsourcing its opposition 31-6 in the four contests. Since Saturday night’s Essex County Tournament final against Mount St. Dominic, the Raiders erupted for nine runs in a semifinal win over South Plainfield and 10 against West Morris.
“The whole state tournament we made sure that we were on it early and got the runs we needed to make sure we could play relaxed,” said DeMaio, who went 3-for-4 with two runs scored. “It’s great to show that we can actually hit the ball, every single one of us.”
“We struggled a little early on (this season) offensively, but they went back to basics and they worked hard,” head coach Luann Zullo said. “We’re peaking at the right time and we keep getting a little better every day which is fantastic.”
Nutley looks to continue its state title pursuit on Wednesday when it travels to the winner of Friday’s North 1, Group 3 final between Roxbury and Morris Knolls. Next week however wasn’t on their minds quite yet. Instead the thoughts were directed back to the elusive title and the long journey this group had to finally get there.
“I was a little emotional because I wanted it so badly for this group of seniors,” Zullo said, recalling the two previous trips to the sectional final, two Essex County Tournament finals and losing their sophomore season due to Covid. “I wanted it so badly for them and they worked so hard. I couldn’t be more proud of them, I couldn’t be more excited for them.”
“We all wanted it so bad,” Stoeckel said. “Me, Syd and Lia have been playing here since freshman year. We’ve been playing together for way too many years to count. We needed that. We knew we had to come out and put it away.”
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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer
Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)